I'm a street blues singer living in France, but mostly make my living out of teaching the old acoustic finger picking blues guitar techniques.
I play all acoustic blues and ragtime styles. I play it like it was played and teach it so that it's real.
Very few people have mastered fingerstyle blues guitar like Jim Bruce. His timing and phrasing are impeccable. Born in Sheffield, England. Jim Bruce has traveled the world, living and working in Paris, the USA, Germany, and Denmark. Jim is one of the few master guitarists who is also a talented teacher.
Lesson #5: Mississippi John Hurt - Spike Driver Blues
Mississippi John Hurt was a Delta blues man with a distinctively different style. No dark tones of the blues in A or E in the style of Robert Johnson here, but an easy and relaxed feeling with a bouncy feel. Hurt's finger picking technique is reminiscent of Elizabeth Cotton, who also played gentle ragtime flavored guitar pieces.
The foundation of this kind of music is the alternating bass pattern laid down by the thumb, sometimes on two bass strings and sometimes on three - the best guitar players of this style did both and also reversed the pattern at will! Basically, whatever the picking fingers are doing on the higher strings (or sometimes the bass strings as well) the thumb keeps alternating those basses. To get the right result it's necessary to practice until you can do it in your sleep!
A striking feature of Hurt's picking technique is the flexibility of his two fingers. Even though his pinky is firmly anchored to the guitar sound board, his two fingers move around with ease with impeccable timing - it's a good trick if you can do it. Not only is the timing perfect, buit his accenting helps produce a hypnotic syncopation which is very appealing.
Spike Driver is played in G and he doesn't really use any other straight chord, but just changes a finger or two to change the flavor of the basic G chord. The result is a masterpiece in blues finger picking guitar and a joy to learn - have a ball!
Lesson #4: Searchin' For My Baby - Floyd Council
Floyd Council was a so-called 'minor' blues and his name rings a bell for most people because Pink Floyd named their group after him and Pink Anderson - incidentally, Floyd and Pink never even met. There are only 6 tracks of Floyd's songs, but he played second guitar on some of Blind Boy Fuller's recordings and their styles are very similar.
There's a rich vein of ragtime style music emanating from Carolina, two of the finest being Willie Walker and Reverend Gary Davis, who taught Fuller when they played together around the tobacco warehouses of Durham.
Many of the licks used in 'Searchin' For My Baby', which is played in C, can be traced back to Davis' playing and Floyd's picking is solid and infectious. The song has a syncopated feel and many individual right and techniques are brought into play - thumb rolls, thumb jumps, alternating bass patterns and single string runs picked alternately with thumb and forefinger.
Like a great many master acoustic blues guitar pickers, he used just one finger and of course the Thumb Is King! Listen to the original carefully to pick up the things that are not normally tabbed properly, if at all, such as where to damp a section and which hand to use for that damping.
Above all, don't forget why we are doing this - to have fun! If you're not having fun, you're doing something wrong.
Lesson #3: Walkin' With The Devil - Spicing Up Your Robert Johnson
Many blues songs are not that hard to figure out and play. Me And the Devil by Robert Johnson is in this category, and there are many lessons available to learn how to play blues guitar in this style. However, sometimes it's a long haul from learning to play the basic patterns to performing a song fluently with that extra special 'something' that makes it stand apart.
Tablature can give us the basic idea but we have to look at the original blues men for inspiration. When first starting to create lessons, I took my own playing apart and realized I did some things automatically, without thinking and these things gave the music it's flavor. That's what this week's lesson is all about - how to make Me and The Devil come alive.
We want to put our own stamp on our blues playing, while understanding that we can never improve on the originals. Saying that, we can adapt it and give it a little uniqueness, as long as we keep the original feel and power. You can do this by keeping the basic style and approach, always being careful that new ideas don't pull it too far away from the original.
Take it easy and keep it real!
Lesson #2: The Power of Gospel Blues Guitar
One of the great things about acoustic blues guitar is it's diversity, spanning the dark sounds of the Delta, though the ragtime sounds of Piedmont, Chicago swing and Gospel Blues. Naturally, we want to explore them all, which is a lifetime's work, and incorporate our favorite styles and techniques into our own playing.
Out of all the Gospel blues guitar guys, no one did it better than Reverend Gary davis. Davis could play any style at all, but his Gospel guitar sound had a richness and virtuosity not found elsewhere. Even if you're not particulalry religious, the sheer power of this music just can't be denied and learning it is an exciting, if challenging, experience.
We're not going to learn a Gary Davis song in this video, but I tried to use some of his ideas and approach in a modern song that I wrote a few years ago called 'Jesus, Takin' Me Home'. I use a plastic thumb pick and just one steel finger pick to try and capture his sound. It's interesting that many legendary blues men used just one finger (Gary Davis, Broonzy, Floyd Council Doc Watson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Johhny Shines... ) and that a great many modern day blues men used two or three. In my experience, using more than one finger pulls the sound away from the authentic blues and makes it sound too 'pretty'.
There are no challenging chords in this mini-lesson, in which we try just the intro to the song, but I included plenty of single string runs picked with alternating thumb and finger strokes - another trademark of the Reverend.
Lesson #1: The Techniques Of Blind Blake, King of Ragtime Guitar
Blake wasn't called the King of Ragtime for nothing - he had the title before Elvis even! Any guitarist who has explored finger-picking blues techniques will know at least one or two of his songs. Blake's music inspired many later guitarists and even legends such as Reverend Gary Davis and Big Bill Broonzy admitted to listening to his records with admiration.
Arthur Blake's style was very precise and crisp, with a bouncy ragtime syncopated feel. Although with most of his pieces we can quite easily work out where to put our fingers, it's often the sheer speed of his work that defeats those not willing to invest a lot of time into the style. Luckily, he also produced slower songs which had basically the same structure, so we have plenty to go on.
Having cut over 120 sides, it must have been incredibly difficult to vary his output enough to keep the public's interest. Blake did this by using several keys (but mostly C and G) and experimenting with the bass patterns and overall timing. For example, in TootieBlues, he starts off at a leisurely pace and suddenly doubles up on the timing, complete with single string runs thrown in! It's very challenging and huge fun to play.
In his instrumental 'Guitar Chimes' he shows us one of the Golden Rules of blues guitar - how not to bore the listener! The piece is over 3 minutes long and he almost never repeats himself - impressive.
Two of Blake's pieces are legendary because of their complexity and speed. Police Dog Blues in open D tuning is a fast masterpiece of precision picking and it's quite rare to hear a faithful rendition by a modern guitarist - Ry Cooder is the closest there's ever been, I think.
West Coast Blues is a showcase for Blake's trademark technique, which was to roll the thumb across two bass strings so that we hear two notes 'bu-bum' instead of just one. When this is done using an alternating bass picking pattern the result is an extremely syncopated sound that almost defies belief. When I first heard this I was certain that two guitars were being played. It's almost impossible to play it like Blake and one day I'll get it right. Saying that, I'm finding that some of my students are making a better job of it than I do, which is what it's all about.
Audition Video: Jim Bruce
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TrueFire's Next Top Guitar Instructor:
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